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Pie-ynasty established!: Team Register takes Golden Roller at Rhubarb Rumble V

  • 27 July, 2020
  • Courtney Crowder
Michael Morain

By Courtney Crowder

YOUR HOME, U.S.A. — The competitors formed ranks not at folding tables on a small Iowa main street, but in Zoom windows.

They sported not full Lycra suits and the musty smell of sweat and sunscreen, but pandemic hair and the funky fragrance of work-from-home Day 10,047.

They came with a ravenous hunger not just for the flaky perfection of pie, but for the honor of winning Rhubarb Rumble V, the annual pie-eating contest pitting journalists at the Des Moines Register against National Public Radio reporters in a one-slice-per-person relay race for greatness.

And when the crumbs settled, I am thrilled to report that Team Register has again not only claimed glutenous glory, but ensured the Golden Roller — as it sounds — stays in Iowa for another year. With our fingers licked and our blueberry-filling-stained chins held high, the Register has officially established a Pie-ynasty, winning four battles to their one fluke.

“All I can say is hats off to the Register team,” said a dejected Scott “Fork User” Horsley, leader of Team No Pie Refused (aka Team NPR). “It was an impressive performance.”

And to think this crusty combat almost didn’t happen.

Kim Norvell

In April, our host, the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa — better known as RAGBRAI — was canceled due to concerns about the spreading coronavirus pandemic, leaving the fifth edition of the tart tradition in peril.

But Horsley and Team Register, led by Brian “Pecan” Powers, refused to stand by as bellies remained empty and competitive energy un-exerted on sugar sweats (a saccharine cousin to the meat sweats). The teams rallied, vowing to do battle with hands and, uhhhh, forks, I guess?, (eye roll, Scott, eye roll) in the socially distanced way to which we’ve all recently become accustomed.

“It’s important that cultural institutions such as this can endure despite all the challenges this year,” Kyle “Pie-Owa’s Prizewinner” Munson gushed.

Founded in 2015, the speed pie-eating began when Munson, a former Iowa columnist at the Register, challenged NPR’s No Pie Refused team to defend their name in an official capacity in a three-on-three battle. They didn’t, and the Register won with a clean sweep that year and in 2017. (Both teams agreed to a truce in 2016 as eaters were otherwise engaged in election coverage.)

Then came the dark days of 2018, when Register eaters were embarrassed by Camila Domonoske, a business reporter at NPR and vegan weighing 100 pounds soaking wet. Although a nail-biter to the end, the Register’s trusty closer Michael “Meringue” Morain was bested by Domonoske, who didn’t seem to breathe or bite, but rather inhaled her slice — a response, scientists believe, to her body ingesting lard for the first time in years.

The Register regained the title last year, though the victory wasn’t as sweet. Domonoske, the Kerri Strug of pie-eating, wasn’t in the competition.

But in 2020, the rivalry was back on, as Morain and Domonoske lined up (metaphorically) across from one another.


Morain had been fasting for weeks in preparation, he said, and eating sweets while rage listening to NPR in hopes of triggering a Pavlovian response. Training aside, seeing Domonoske staring back at him through Zoom struck fear in the closer.

“She covers Tesla, among other companies,” said a confident Horsley before the match, “and she will bring that electrifying energy to our relay team.” (See what he did there?)

Being states away, each team was tasked with securing their own pie. NPR went with a mixed berry from Pie Vibes in Maryland, and the Register demolished a blueberry number made by Iowa State Fair blue-ribbon winner Kathleen Beebout. Rules were that each pie had to be 9 inches in diameter cut into eight slices with a double crust top — because we all know lattice is just a garnish.

During competition, eaters’ only reprieve from pie (as though you need a reprieve from pie) was a glass of water.

Pie acquired. Smack talked. The field was ready, packed with impressive eaters on both sides.

Leading off for Team Register was Digital Editor Cecelia Hanley, a rookie to the speed pie-eating game, but a natural who easily bested NPR’s first contestant “Smokey” Baer — who skirted clean plates rules by leaving nearly half the slice in his beard. Hanley’s nascent eating game was buoyed by extra hydration prior to the feat and big bites, she said in a post-game interview.

Michael Morain

Team NPR made a swift comeback in the fourth round with Michael Zamora, a visual editor, who employed the “Pizza Pie” system — palm your piece like a New Yorker and bite center-to-crust like you’ve got to catch a subway uptown. His quick work put No Pie Refused back into contention.

With our lead dwindling, the signal was given for me to go. Normally a devotee of the Pizza Pie method, I let my pie warm prior to the contest and quickly abandoned hope it would stay together in transit from plate to mouth. Instead, I had to use the “Pinch and Shovel” approach, pecking at the pie like a chicken and craning the chunks to my face like I was getting the last crumbs out of a Doritos bag.

Morain dove into Team Register’s final piece a mere bite or two ahead of Domonoske using his patented “Hoover” technique. His belief, as passed down to his mentees, is that there’s really no need to involve hands when your face can meet pie on the plate.

With the uneasy confidence of Casey at the Bat and Domonoske making quick work of her slice, Morain sucked the blueberry remnants off his thumb as teammates chanted for him to SHOW HIS MOUTH TO THE JUDGES, GOSHDANGIT.

In the nick of time, he did, besting Domonoske — this time.

With Team NPR once again bridesmaids to our bride, Domonoske said though she started from behind, “she held out hope in her heart” for a comeback as she took her first bites.

“You can’t eat a piece of pie without believing in the possibility of the pie,” she said. “But about halfway through, I just saw hope die and I had to persevere anyway.”

“I think I built some character here,” she said. “I’d like to think that’s some really positive personal growth.”


Dejected, but not down-and-out, Horsley promised his team will return to the battle ground, adopting the slogan “Next Year in Iowa!”

But more than cementing a pie-ynasty, this Rhubarb Rumble reigned as a bright spot, a welcome breath of berry-scented air, in a world where *gestures widely* is so disappointing.

As I write this, eyes misty in celebration, I notice that my water bottle has been stained with purple pie filling, still gooey to the touch.

That victory stickiness.

I will covet it forever.

Courtney Crowder, the Register’s Iowa Columnist, traverses the state’s 99 counties telling Iowans’ stories. She prefers gummy bears, but pie will do. Reach her at ccrowder@dmreg.com or 515-284-8360. Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.

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